Earlier this year I won a GM Covid Commission to create a piece of work exploring life during the coronavirus pandemic. The work now forms part of a digital archive of artistic responses from creatives living and working in Greater Manchester. I created The Pengguling Egg – an invented, poetic origin myth where the narrative elements are derived and abstracted from news stories, social media shares and questionnaire responses (thank you SO much to everyone who sent a reply and shared their stories).


You can read the full poem and view the artwork here.

The Pengguling Egg story is in part our own complex journey – one in which many of us have experienced fear, anxiety and loss, while others have found a new kind of contentment in slowness and domesticity. It's also a story of our precarious relationship to nature in which our customs and behaviours pose a potentially fatal threat to ourselves and the species we share the earth with. Think about the pangolin, for example, who takes the lead in this invented myth. The pangolin is the world's most trafficked and highly endangered animal, and was initially suspected to be at the heart of the coronavirus scientific origin story. Like the civet (or 'Toddy cat') during the SARS outbreak, the pangolin found itself facing threat of mass culling and potential extinction.


Finally, the work is a kind of clumsy collective narrative in which ancient mythologies from different cultures across the world become tangled and entwined... as are our fates. To accompany the written story, I hand carved and pressed a detailed linoleum print in the style of Azoth woodcuts from the 1600s. I chose this aesthetic since Azoth is the "essential agent of transformation" in alchemy. It felt apt for a story of change and renewal.


At some point I'll share a few more details about where the narrative elements came from (the pangolin, the toddy cat, the hoodwink bird, the terrapin, and so on...), but for now I hope you enjoy the work.


Recently, I tried my hand at my first ever dramatic monologue in response to an open call for pieces about Women in Lockdown. I didn't make the cut (hey, there were over 1000 entries and I've never written a monologue before), but it was a fun exercise and I got a new piece of writing out of it.


I chose to write something inspired by the Ancient Greek myth in which Hades kidnaps the goddess Persephone while she's distracted by a beautiful narcissus flower. Hades spirits Persephone away to the underworld to become his bride. Whilst in hell, Persephone eats a pomegranate seed and so is bound there forever. However, her mother Demeter is not too pleased about the matter and her distress causes all the plants upon the earth to die, pushing the world to the precipice of famine. In the end (and with a little intervention from Zeus), Demeter and Hades strike a deal – Persephone can split her time between walking the earth and being in hell. When Persephone is above ground, the flowers and crops thrive. But when she returns to hell, the earth wilts and dies once more. Hence we experience the seasons and the circle of life, death and renewal. In many tellings of the myth, Persephone is a hapless victim. However, in some retellings, Persephone is in love with Hades... it is from this ambiguity that I chose to write my piece. I also wanted to explore the idea of 'lockdown' as it relates to our connections with others – how we are bound to those we love, and those who love (or, in the case of Persephone, worship) us.


I've shared the piece below as a work in progress. I think I might review its free form and restructure this into more of a poetic verse, but for now here it is in all its rawness ready for re-shaping!


(P.S. Prosperpina is the Roman equivalent of Persephone... I thought it might be fun to play on the duality of identity.)



Proserpina creeps


First I was lost to the light,

betrayed by the blinding bright glare of a sun

hanging low in the sky,

belly ripe with the weight of summer stone fruit,

And the sky so unwittingly potent.

Next I was lost to the vine,

seduced by the scent of its peach-plum promise,

locked in a heady embrace

while all about the earth cracked open to receive me,

yet I, so unwittingly potent.

Then I was lost to the land,

duped by the kiss of a rictus grin

upon my lips, that turned to dust

as the ashes of Hades blazed against my nectarine skin.

Such eyes! So witting and potent.

But to whom was I lost,

locked now ‘neath fiery mantle

this father’s possession yielded willingly,

complicit, tossed like a wilted narcissus from his garden?

To him? Surely not.

And the cost to my mother, of I –

so smothered by domesticity

and the sweet burden of familial embrace –

was as a bolder in her belly.

The question of my wit, cold stone, a cyanide pit

naked, now, of its cherry flesh.

Oh, how she howled

the totality of her loss like proof of possession –

for one cannot lose a thing one does not own.

While the softness of my breath,

reined as the roaring hounds who sped my chariot to hell,

was snuffed,

choked to cinders in the thick fog of her affection

lit only by Hekate’s torch.

Yet, who is lost, truly, to a mother’s love?

But rather locked to one’s hearth,

an eternal return.

For while I took my first steps,

plucked a seed from the devil’s garden,

Mother made a deal with that same beast

and the earth wilted under her sorrow.

And in that moment, we were bound together,

the brute and I,

locked in a cyclic embrace,

to swoon like felled oaks

then rise with the first flowers of spring,

again

and again

and again.

So what of you,

who think me snared?

Who bid me stitched into the weft of a winter turned spring.

May I find a voice in you, my infernal valet?

You loose-limbed thing who draws upon my name like nectar,

who binds me in chains

of sorrel

of sapphire,

and on my head a tourmaline crown.

Though all about the handmaids speak their winter hymnal,

a passing elegy,

you sense I do not pull away, my carmine king

but lean into your scarlet affections and ripen,

to see with the clarity of a nascent moon

at twilight,

then creep, crepuscular-like, among your desires

free from the noose of their tales.


A little print based the statue of Isis-Persephone, in the Temple of the Egyptian gods, Gortyn, Crete.

Big news! I’m excited to share that I’ve been selected to create a new piece of work as part of GMCA’s first round of COVID-19 Creative Commissions. As well as providing much-needed opportunities for Greater Manchester artists right now, the Creative Commissions programme will also create a unique archive, documenting responses to the pandemic through stories and art. There are 60 of us in the first round of awards, a mix of writers, visual artists, musicians, games makers, all sorts! I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with.


So what will I be creating?


As human beings we have a tendency to spin yarns from our experiences. To cast heroes and villains, plot dramatic journeys, moments of change and catharsis. From everyday conversations to ancient myths, stories help us make sense of the world out there and our place within it. So, as part of my response I’d like to explore the role of storytelling during times of conflict and crisis, and to experiment with the stories we’re currently telling ourselves to create a short prose piece and accompanying linoleum print to illustrate the story.


But rather than tell my own story, I’d like to create something that approaches a more collective narrative in the way that oral storytelling traditions used to – where myths and folklore were woven together from shared customs, beliefs and experiences. My intention is to create something that captures elements of our shared experience right now, from the mundane to the unexpected, and recast them in a mythical, folkloric mode.


So! I need your help… I want to hear from you. How you’re feeling. What you’re thinking. All the ways your life has changed. What you’re afraid of. What you’re looking forward to. How you’re coping...


If you’re happy to share your thoughts with me, you’ll find a few questions on the link below. Be honest – it’s all anonymous! Once I have a few responses, I’m then hoping to weave together universal threads and to use these as a jumping off point to create a new, fictional work.


This is quite a different process to how I usually create new work, but this feels like such a strange time and the cultural shift so huge and so visible… it’s a unique opportunity to create a collective narrative. As I haven’t worked in this way before, the result might be more ‘exquisite corpse’ than modern myth, but I think it could be an interesting approach… up for it?


https://forms.gle/m7ZmtEsq9CFBZYTx9


Deadline: Fri 24 April*


Thank you so much, love and solidarity to you all x



*I’ve set a deadline for responses to give me time to write a tale and create a lino print in time for the commission deadline.


All work © 2020 Michelle Collier

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